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A Trifecta Win at London's Heathrow Aiport

Recently I had the opportunity to experience the unique partnership between British Airways, Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, and Sofitel's new London-Heathrow Hotel.

When I flew to Heathrow from Los Angeles. I booked an overnight flight. British Airways offers its Club World (business class) passengers a reclining seat with a privacy partition. After a full-course meal, I turned the seat into a bed, enjoyed a night-cap, turned off the light, and went to sleep. When we landed at Heathrow, I was refreshed by a good night's sleep and a proper English breakfast of a sausage roll and tea.

British Airways is the exclusive tenant of Heathrow's Terminal 5. In designing the terminal, BA wanted to create a flagship experience that would highlight the English tradition of service and comfort. The opening of the terminal complimented upgrades in the long-haul British Airways fleet.

Terminal 5's opening in March, 2008 was marred by numerous, widely publicized problems. Designed to be a high-tech solution to an over-crowded, antiquated airport, Terminal 5 suffered start-up difficulties reminiscent of similar efforts at upgrading baggage handling at the Denver and Madrid airports.

Given all I'd heard about Terminal 5, I'm happy to say my experience was completely different. The line at passport control moved quickly and my bags (all intact) arrived long before I reached the baggage carousel. Clearly those early difficulties were just growing pains. When I returned a few days later for a flight to Paris, checking in and dropping off my bags was just as effortless. 96 automated check-in kiosks eliminate lines except at the busiest of times.

The terminal also has the advantage of a well-maintained public transportation system. There is easy access on M25 for bus service, private cars, and cabs and a railway station in the terminal has platforms for Heathrow Express and London's Piccadilly Line.

Key to the design of Terminal 5 was a desire to keep the flow of passengers as efficient as possible. The governing idea for the terminal is "flow-forward". With a high-ceiling, open space design, passengers move easily through the terminal to the check-in kiosks, on to the Fast Bag Drop Desks and a quick stop at Security before moving into the restaurant and shopping concourse.

Even small details help facilitate the flow-forward. At Security, the trays that passengers use for their laptops, shoes, cell phones, and belts come up automatically from below the X-ray conveyor belt. A small detail but useful in efficiently getting passengers through the usual security bottle-neck. Terminal 5 is filled with such well-thought out details.

Knowing that the traffic through Heathrow will increase in the next decade, two satellite buildings will be connected to Terminal 5. One of those buildings will come on line in 2010 as a long-haul terminal to accommodate the Airbus A380 and Boeing Dreamliner. To be able to adapt to the airport's next-generation needs, the floors of the terminal aren't even attached to the walls. Massive struts line the circumference of the building, allowing planners to remove the floors and reconfigure the terminal to accommodate future needs.

Besides demonstrating their design prowess, British Airways wanted Terminal 5 to exemplify their commitment to passenger comfort and service. In the public areas of the massive terminal, besides the dozens of retail stores, there are cafes and restaurants. It's easy to pick up a drink from Lovejuice or have a leisurely meal at Gordon Ramsey's elegant restaurant on the second level plaza where it overlooks the concourse and tarmac below.

For the passenger flying on a Club World or First Class ticket or a member of Club Europe, Gold or Silver Executive Club, British Airways offers access to six exclusive Lounges. Spread over two floors, the lounges fill an area the size of two football fields. In addition to a business center with free internet access and a collection of hot and cold buffets and open bars, the lounges have fine wine and champagne bars. For travelers with more time, there is a spa providing complimentary massages and showers. Additionally for First Class customers there is an indoor terrace overlooking the runway, concierge services and a private restaurant.

Completing the trifecta at Heathrow is the recently opened Sofitel London-Heathrow Hotel. I didn't expect much, even though this was a Sofitel. It was, after all, an airport hotel. I assumed the hotel would be a very bare-bones affair, designed only to provide minimal comforts within sight of the airport's runways.

In design the hotel seems cut from the same cloth as Terminal 5. Sleek, modern, airy, filled with light coming through the glass-lined walls. The high ceilings provide a relief from the all too frequently overcast London-sky.

To enter the Hotel, you exit the terminal and walk toward the parking garage. Before you've taken 15 steps, an elevator invites you upstairs to the hotel lobby. Walking toward the hotel down an expansive corridor, I was struck by an amazing detail: absolute quiet. Through the large windows I could see jets taking off from the nearby runway (and I mean very-nearby) but I couldn't hear them. Like a movie with the sound turned off, the jets were heading skyward but not even a whisper of their jet engines' noise leaked through the triple-paned windows.

That same effect continued in the high-ceilinged lobby, atria, bar and restaurant areas and, most importantly, in my room. Large, spacious, and well equipped with the latest technological features--including US-electrical outlets--the rooms give the traveler a respite from noise and clutter. When the hotel was designed, lengthy focus group sessions were conducted. Among the many suggestions the design team heard was one I found so smart: no direct sunlight should come into the rooms. The Sofitel added yet another creature comfort to the room: high-quality bedding and sheets. All those features added up. I had a really good night's sleep.

To handle the great number of guests passing through Heathrow, the hotel has 600 rooms. But rather than build a large, monolithic structure, Sofitel designed the building to have a low profile, with the rooms organized into a series of blocks, each one surrounding an atrium. No endlessly long corridors or one enormous central lobby, Sofitel has created a large facility with an intimate feel.

From the business traveler's point of view, the hotel has other advantages. To support meetings, whether in person or by internet connection, the hotel has 45 meeting rooms. Some are small enough to handle a gathering of a dozen, while the Aurora Suite can accommodate a reception for 1700. Their IT department provides easy hook-ups for video-conferencing. A/V equipment is readily available for presentations. And, because this is a Sofitel--and the management encourages you to never forget that they are a French-based company--you can expect great food and superlative wines either in one of their many restaurants or delivered to your room by room service.

When there's the opportunity for a break from work, the hotel has a full-service spa, including massage and relaxation rooms. If there's the need for a meeting in Central London or if you wanted to catch a West End play, you can be in the city within 25 minutes. Paddington Station is easily accessible by Heathrow Express.

Finally it's worth mentioning that the rooms at the Heathrow Sofitel are 20-30% larger and 2/3s the cost of comparable hotels in the city.

Even though this is an airport hotel, it has the comforts and feel of a destination hotel. On my next business trip to London, I look forward to doing more sightseeing, visiting the Tate Modern, walking in the parks, and eating at Wagamama, but if I only have a couple of days, I'll stay at the airport. The Sofitel London-Heathrow Hotel is too convenient, pleasant and affordable to stay anywhere else.


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